Till MEAT Do Us Apart

Written by Lakshmi | Lakshmi Ajay | Updated: Oct 20 2013, 15:11pm hrs
MeatSandwichworkz, a fusion street cafe in Vastrapur, last September, where every second item is non-vegetarian.
As a college student in Ahmedabad in the early 80s, Himanshu Desai, 53, from Navsari, was stumped by the unavailability of non-vegetarian food in the city, except for a few run-down places in the older (eastern) part of Ahmedabad. That changed only after 1999, when a slew of non-vegetarian eateries sprang up in the western part of the city. When I moved back last year, I saw that the food scene hadnt really changed much even if a few Subways and McDonalds have opened, he says. Desai launched

Sandwichworkz, a fusion street cafe in Vastrapur, last September, where every second item is non-vegetarian.

Food in Ahmedabad is more of a socio-cultural marker than a gastronomical experience. The city in the past has shown zero tolerance for meat-eaters, forcing even multinational giants like KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) to buckle under its strict vegetarian code. In 2011, when the American food company launched at a high-end mall in the city, local residents, a majority of who were Brahmins, Patels and Jains, staged a protest. After weeks of stalemate, the brand placated them by including different coloured uniforms for staff members who would serve vegetarian and non-vegetarian items, besides separate counters, cooking areas, oils and even utensils. Pizza Hut and Subway chains too were forced to open their only all-vegetarian outlets in Ahmedabad.

The citys meat politics harks back to the 60s. At that time, there was a huge movement against cow slaughter and this is still the only region where on certain Jain festivals, the slaughterhouses are compelled to remain closed. It speaks of the economic dominance of the Jain community living here. Despite their small numbers, they are very influential, says Ghanshyam Shah, a city-based sociologist and political scientist. The restrictions saw the number of slaughterhouses and eateries serving non-vegetarian food dwindle. Shah speaks of his own experience in 2004 of buying eggs packed surreptitiously in a black polythene cover in Ambawadi, a neighbourhood dominated by upper caste Jains, which had several Jain temples in the vicinity. Things have improved since.

In those days, in post-riot Gujarat, it was difficult going for meat-eaters. Civic authorities would regularly swoop down on roadside shops selling non-vegetarian items; housing societies did not encourage meat being cooked on the premises and slowly meat eaters were pushed to the Muslim-dominant areas of the city across the Sabarmati river. Non-vegetarians would have to take recourse to eat-streets like Bhatiyar Galli in eastern Ahmedabad across the Sabarmati, where amidst the din and the bustle of markets, meatshops owned mostly by Muslims provided oily chicken samosas, meat chops and fried fish, while those with heavy pockets could grab a biryani at the local Paramount Hotel or Simran restaurant.

Entrepreneurs who opened non-vegetarian eateries speak of how they were forced to keep their scale of operations small. Swapan Das Mohapatra, owner of Tripti Restaurant in Bodakdev area, who serves a meaty meal for as less as Rs 150, says, The first year, things were difficult. But it helped that we were located inside a commercial building that saw different kinds of footfalls. Now, more Gujaratis come to eat here, the number of Bengalis or Odiyas are actually less.

Asvin Simon, MD of Bangs Fried Chicken (QSR), that has a 450 sq feet express format outlet in the city, too had a difficult time scouting for location. It took us six months to find a place as no one was willing to let out space to a non-vegetarian eatery. Finally, we had to settle for a smaller area. Even shopping malls did not initially give us space in their food courts as people did not want non-vegetarian food being sold in the same space as vegetarian ones. But the mentality seems to be changing now. We have doubled our business and have become more visible, he says. The company has plans to open two more outlets in the city by the year-end.

The aversion to meat seems to have mellowed over time. In Gujarat, we have created a myth that all Gujaratis are vegetarian. If you go by the number of Gujaratis who are non-vegetarians, then one will find that the majority is meat-eating. Vegetarian Gujaratis include a small section of Jains, Vaishnavs and Baniyas, who follow strict dietary guidelines, and even refuse to eat onions, garlic and meat, says Shah.

Economic changes have led to greater migration to the cities and there is now a new middle class, which includes a sizeable section from the OBC Dalits and tribals, traditionally non-vegetarians apart from the meat-abstaining Brahmins, Jains and Baniyas. Its an almost cosmopolitan mix and because of this, the demand for non-vegetarian food is only likely to increase. This demand has to be catered to, says Shah.

Ahmedabad today boasts of a Japanese restaurant, an exclusive Awadhi cuisine restaurant and raw meat shops in west Ahmedabad, which was unheard of before. The real estate boom gave non-vegetarian restaurants a foothold in newer areas developing on the western outskirts of the city like Prahladnagar, 100 Feet Road, and Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway, which once connected Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar but today is dotted with a spate of clubs, malls and swanky automobile showrooms.

A recent report released by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India (ASSOCHAM) claimed that the overall official meat production in Gujarat in the financial year 2012 totalled 35,286 metric tonnes (MT); an increase of 62 per cent over 2011s production of 21,723 MT. The report said it had excluded unregistered slaughterhouses from this calculation. Even so, the total production of meat from buffaloes, goats, sheeps and pigs is calculated at 3895 MT, showing an increase of 7.39 per cent over the previous year. The demand for poultry meat, compared to other forms of meat, like mutton, pork, beef and fish, is fast

growing due to economical reasons, the study observed.

Entrepreneurs in Ahmedabad want to tap into this demand and are braving the odds to be a stakeholders in this growth. The result: a spate of Lebanese, Mediterranean, Teriyaki, Thai and Awadhi restaurants and bistros that openly flaunt the non-vegetarian tag. Restaurateur Manbir J Dua, who tasted success with a vegetarian restaurant Mint Route, has started a smaller restaurant called Desi Route which serves non-vegetarian Indian Chinese and offers takeaway services. Initially, we were apprehensive about starting an all non-vegetarian joint, but I knew there was a market for it. So we started small, with a 35-seater and we now have young professionals and Gujarati families who have lived abroad, coming to dine. The more conservative ones order takeaways, he says.

Melanie Pinto, owner of Melange that sells several frozen food meat brands to retail shops in the area, agrees. We have seen a huge demand for frozen food items like chicken nuggets, tandoori nuggets, keema parantha, prawns, fish fingers, fillets and cold cuts. Its particularly high in the outskirts of the city like Chandkheda and Bopal, where migrant communities are larger. Initially, the retailers we distribute to said the demand was more from non-Gujaratis, but the numbers are evening out now, she says.

Cooking meat at home, however, still remains taboo to most Gujarati families. A self-confessed lover of Middle-eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, 40-year-old singer Umesh Mehta and his wife have to head to restaurants to sample non-vegetarian food. Being a Brahmin household, no form of meat is prepared in our house. Even today, my parents never go to a restaurant that serves meat along with vegetarian food. They dont endorse my eating meat either, but I am a non-vegetarian by choice, he says.

However, the citys truce with meat is yet to percolate to its housing societies that still do not encourage meat-eating tenants. When I was scouting for a paying guest accommodation here, I was told not to bring meat or cook it in the premises. Even now, whenever I get non-vegetarian food packed, I have to eat it in my room stealthily. Thankfully, many new non-vegetarian joints have sprung up and there is a whole array of fish and chicken shops one can go to. These are signs that the city is slowly accepting meat-lovers, says Namrata Ghosh, 26, a media professional.